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Why We Can’t Fire Our Way to Urban School Reform

A recent SchoolBook article on the high teacher turnover at one of Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Schools raises an important question in the debate over improving urban schools — how can we stop corporate education reform’s focus on “getting rid of bad teachers” from creating a level of instability in school staffing that hurts our city’s students?

The case of turnover in the Harlem Success schools is only the latest example of this issue, but it’s a striking one. Over a third of the teachers at Harlem Success 3 have chosen to leave the school in the past few months, a decision Moskowitz describes as “frankly, unethical.” At the same time, however, Moskowitz chooses to employ her staff with a policy of “at will employment” rather than a negotiated contract. Under this model, she and her principals have the right to terminate teachers’ service at the school at any time, for any reason. In fact, Steven Brill’s Class Warfare describes the case of one new teacher who was “forced out” only a few months into the school year when a young principal at Harlem Success decided she wasn’t a “good fit” for the school.

The deep irony here is that in this view of “ethical” teacher turnover, Moskowitz and her staff believe that they should have sole control over determining whether a teacher is a good fit for the school — but in the article, teachers’ stated reasons for voluntarily leaving seem thoughtful and professional:

One former Harlem Success Academy 3 teacher who quit at the end of last school year said she had left because she felt “micromanaged.” “You couldn’t teach in the way you wanted to teach,” she said. “If your kids weren’t sitting perfectly, looking straight at the teacher, not saying a single word, then you weren’t doing your job.” […]

In an interview, a former Harlem Success Academy 1 teacher who quit several months into last school year said it was a decision she made only after realizing there was an impassable gulf between how she wanted to run her classroom and the teaching and discipline methods her supervisor insisted on.

Others leave for more personal reasons — a point echoed in Brill’s book when the same young principal who fires the teacher early in the narrative later decides to quit Harlem Success herself in the middle of the school year (leaving for a job in the district), “citing issues related to her health and personal life. A month later, she used the word sustainable a dozen times in explaining her sudden decision to me — as in, ‘This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage.’”

These stories capture one of the troubling contradictions behind some corporate education reformers’ belief that urban education can be fixed through firing more teachers — for example, the repeated mantra of researchers such as Eric Hanushek that if we could simply “replace the bottom 5-8 percent of our teachers with average teachers”, then student learning would skyrocket. In addition, charter leaders frequently brush off concerns about the fact that charters have been shown to have significantly higher teacher turnover than district schools, arguing that at will employment simply makes it easier for them to keep “the right people.”

In reality, the harsh test-score based models of teacher evaluation that Hanushek and many charter school leaders base their policies on are deeply alienating to exactly the good teachers we want to retain in our schools. As seen this year in Washington, D.C. and in Tennessee, poor implementation of teacher evaluation systems which are experienced by teachers as punitive instead of supportive of professional development don’t just result in the departure of individuals who those evaluation systems have determined to be “ineffective.” Instead, they consistently push out large numbers of effective educators who lose patience with the micromanaging and paperwork that interfere with their desire to teach their students in authentic and meaningful ways.

Research has shown that the loss of effective teachers who are swept up in the rush to fire our way to urban school reform is costly not only in terms of money, but also in terms of students’ learning experiences, including not only their performance on tests but also the critically important development of stable relationships with caring adults. Parents and students know this, which is why teacher turnover is one of the concerns we hear about most often from parents at charter schools. Eva Moskowitz and other charter operators (and authorizers) have a responsibility to listen to those concerns for the sake of their students.



  • 1 Harlem Sucess Mom
    · Oct 26, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    This is a ridiculous and intellectually dishonest piece. The author extrapolates that a charismatic principal leaving and taking a number of teachers with her from Harlem Success 3 to go to another, at-will, charter school means that Harlem Success is somehow tossing a ton of great teachers in to the street, willy nilly. The clear facts from the NYT story that Ms. Collins quotes demonstrate that the teacher left one at-will charter for another. Rather than falling apart and complaining, Harlem Success was able to keep on humming and found a number of replacements. At-will employment doesn’t mean at-whim. Harlem Success surely has the right to fire ineffective teachers (imagine that!), but that doesn’t mean they routined toss great teachers to the curb. Their results surely prove they’re on to something. Their kids, poor black and hispanic children (just like the ones who inhabit the schools in which they co-locate) score off the charts on the statewide tests. That’s not for firing great teachers, I can assure you.

    Now, if you want to try to claim that Harlem Success doesn’t have special needs and ELL kids, don’t even start. They most certainly do, not only are 15-20% of the kids special needs, but up to 8-10% are ELLs. Compare this with the UFT’s own charter elementary with about 10% special ed and 1-2% ELL and terriblE results and Ms. Collins’ argument falls apart all together.

    Rather than constructing intellectually and factually dishonest arguments to take down highly successful charters, why can’t we learn from them?

  • 2 Christina Collins
    · Oct 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    I’m very disappointed that “Harlem Success Mom” finds my effort to initiate a serious conversation about teacher turnover “ridiculous and intellectually dishonest.” As I note, my concern is not only with what has happened recently at Harlem Success, but with the general trend of seeing high levels of teacher turnover as a positive force for school improvement. In the email cited in the Times piece, Ms. Moskowitz herself seems concerned about the impact of such turnover – again, as do many of the charter parents we speak with.

    If you do not share such concerns, that’s a valid position – but not one that I think the research evidence supports. It’s unclear if you read the two studies I linked to at the end of the article, but the second one should be of some interest. It was done using data from New York City, and it found that even taking “effectiveness” (as measured by teachers’ value-added scores) into account, teacher turnover had a negative impact on students’ achievement – especially in schools with large numbers of high needs students.

    Finally, the argument that Harlem Success schools have served the same students as neighboring and co-located district schools has been disproven repeatedly – see this post for an overview of the most recent public data that the schools reported to the state (http://www.edwize.org/asking-hard-questions-about-what-works#more-10495). If you have access to different data, I’d welcome the chance to review it and discuss it with you.

    I am always happy to have productive discussions about how we can use what works in both charters and district schools to improve education for all of our city’s students, and am actively engaged in doing so. In this post, I try to present a thoughtful analysis of why we can and should have that conversation around the issue of teacher turnover, and I continue to hope that it can serve as a useful contribution to the broader discussion.